Honoring Thy Fathers


For millions of children across the U.S., this Sunday will not be a cause for celebration.

Because of dramatic increases in divorce and nonmarital childbearing, about 28% of our nation's children -- more than 20 million kids -- now live in a household without their father, up from 10 million kids (14%) in 1970, according to a recent Census Bureau report. Moreover, because most of these boys and girls see their dads infrequently (once a month or less), Father's Day will offer cold comfort to many of these children.

Our nation's epidemic of fatherlessness is just the most salient indicator of what University of Chicago theologian Don Browning has called the "male problematic" -- the tendency of men to live apart from their children and to invest less emotionally and practically in their families than women do.

This situation has not gone unnoticed in America's houses of worship. Religious leaders, particularly evangelical Protestant ones, have expressed their alarm. "As I review the latest research on family disintegration, I am repeatedly confronted with the same disturbing issue," recently wrote Dr. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. "Boys are in trouble today primarily because their parents, and especially their dads, are distracted, overworked, harassed, exhausted, disinterested, chemically dependent, divorced, unable to cope or simply not there."

But how successful have churches and synagogues been in getting the men in their congregations to put family first? Mr. Browning argues that, historically, one of the signal achievements of Christianity and Judaism is that they underlined the sacred character of the marriage vow -- thereby encouraging men to be good husbands and fathers.

Religious Americans are also less likely to divorce. Specifically, Americans who attend religious services regularly are about 35% less likely to divorce than are their married peers who rarely or never attend services. Once again, couples who attend together are especially unlikely to split.

Religion continues to have a significant influence, even in today's culture, as I explain in a report on faith, fatherhood and marriage published by the Institute for American Values earlier this week. Religious faith is linked to happier marriages, fewer divorces and births outside of marriage, and a more involved style of fatherhood.

Take marital happiness. About 65% of married Americans who attend church regularly are "very happy" in their marriages, compared with 58% of married Americans who rarely or never attend. Note that the marital happiness premium is larger for couples who attend church together. Indeed, wives get a boost in marital happiness from attendance only when they worship with their husbands.

Religious Americans are also less likely to divorce. Specifically, Americans who attend religious services regularly are about 35% less likely to divorce than are their married peers who rarely or never attend services. Once again, couples who attend together are especially unlikely to split.

Religion is also linked to lower rates of nonmarital childbearing. Only 25% of mothers who attended church weekly had a child outside of wedlock, compared with 34% of mothers who attended monthly or less. Moreover, unmarried couples who attend religious services together are significantly less likely to have a child outside of marriage than are couples who don't attend together or don't attend at all.

The report also reveals that religious fathers are more likely to devote time, attention and affection to their children than their secular peers. For example, compared with dads who indicate no religious affiliation, fathers who attend religious services regularly devote at least two more hours per week to youth-related activities, such as coaching soccer or leading a Boy Scout troop. Churchgoing fathers are also significantly more likely to keep tabs on their children, monitoring their activities and friends. Finally, religious fathers are about 65% more likely than unaffiliated fathers to report praising and hugging their school-age children "very often."

There are at least three reasons why churchgoing typically connects men to families. First, the rituals and preaching that men encounter in America's houses of worship endow their family responsibilities with sacred power. Second, religious faith seems to help men weather the stresses of work and family life -- from unemployment to the death of a parent -- better than their secular peers; this is important because stress often turns men into distant or ill-tempered fathers and husbands. Third, the social networks that men encounter in religious institutions tend to keep them on a family-centered path. For instance, religious men are less likely to commit adultery than their secular peers, in part because their religious friends are more likely to stigmatize questionable behavior.

To be sure, religion is by no means a silver bullet when it comes to addressing the modern male problematic. Divorce, domestic violence and desertion can still be found in virtually every American congregation. Nevertheless, studies suggest that fathers who celebrate this Father's Day in church are more likely than their secular peers to stick around, and to have children and wives who are happy to have them around.

The Dick & Rick Hoyt story


Bradford Wilcox. "Honoring Thy Fathers." The Wall Street Journal (June 13, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


W. Bradford Wilcox is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Prior to coming to the University of Virginia, he held research fellowships at Princeton University, Yale University and the Brookings Institution. Mr. Wilcox's research focuses on the influence of religious belief and practice on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood. His first book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004) examines the ways in which the religious beliefs and practices of American Protestant men influence their approach to parenting, household labor, and marriage.

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Mr. Wilcox is now researching the effect that religion has on relationships among low-income parents in urban America. Professor Wilcox has received the following two awards from the American Sociological Association Religion Section for his research: the Best Graduate Paper Award and the Best Article Award (with Brian Steensland et al.). His research has also been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and numerous NPR stations. Professor Wilcox teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in statistics, family, and religion. Bradford Wilcox is a member of the Catholic Education Resource Center's advisory board.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal

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